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Ionian Capital from Crimea

Ionian Capital from Crimea


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Crimean War

The Crimean War (1853-1856) stemmed from Russia’s threat to multiple European interests with its pressure of Turkey. After demanding Russian evacuation of the Danubian Principalities, British and French forces laid siege to the city of Sevastopol in 1854. The campaign lasted for a full year, with the Battle of Balaclava and its 𠇌harge of the Light Brigade” among its famous skirmishes. Facing mounting losses and increased resistance from Austria, Russia agreed to the terms of the 1856 Treaty of Paris. Remembered in part for Florence Nightingale’s work for the wounded, the Crimean War reshaped Europe’s power structure.

The Crimean War was a result of Russian pressure on Turkey this threatened British commercial and strategic interests in the Middle East and India. France, having provoked the crisis for prestige purposes, used the war to cement an alliance with Britain and to reassert its military power.

Anglo-French forces secured Istanbul before attacking Russia in the Black Sea, the Baltic, the Arctic, and the Pacific, supported by a maritime blockade. In September 1854 the allies landed in the Crimea, planning to destroy Sevastopol and the Russian Fleet in six weeks before withdrawing to Turkey. After victory on the River Alma, they hesitated the Russians then reinforced the city and attacked the allied flank at the battles of Balaklava and the Inkerman. After a terrible winter, the allies cut Russian logistics by occupying the Sea of Azov then, using superior sea-based logistics, they forced the Russians out of Sevastopol, which fell on September 8𠄹, 1855.


Why Putin Took Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014 was the most consequential decision of his 16 years in power. By annexing a neighboring country’s territory by force, Putin overturned in a single stroke the assumptions on which the post–Cold War European order had rested.

The question of why Putin took this step is of more than historical interest. Understanding his motives for occupying and annexing Crimea is crucial to assessing whether he will make similar choices in the future—for example, sending troops to “liberate” ethnic Russians in the Baltic states—just as it is key to determining what measures the West might take to deter such actions.

Three plausible interpretations of Putin’s move have emerged. The first—call it “Putin as defender”—is that the Crimean operation was a response to the threat of NATO’s further expansion along Russia’s western border. By this logic, Putin seized the peninsula to prevent two dangerous possibilities: first, that Ukraine’s new government might join NATO, and second, that Kiev might evict Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from its long-standing base in Sevastopol.

A second interpretation—call it “Putin as imperialist”—casts the annexation of Crimea as part of a Russian project to gradually recapture the former territories of the Soviet Union. Putin never accepted the loss of Russian prestige that followed the end of the Cold War, this argument suggests, and he is determined to restore it, in part by expanding Russia’s borders.

A third explanation—“Putin as improviser”—rejects such broader designs and presents the annexation as a hastily conceived response to the unforeseen fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The occupation and annexation of Crimea, in this view, was an impulsive decision that Putin stumbled into rather than the careful move of a strategist with geopolitical ambitions.

Over the past two years, Putin has appeared to lend support to all three interpretations. He has suggested that Ukraine’s accession to NATO would have been intolerable and has also claimed that Crimea’s history had made the region “an inseparable part of Russia,” “plundered” from the country after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Yet Putin also told me, at a reception in Sochi in October 2015, that the operation to seize the peninsula was “spontaneous” and was “not at all” planned long in advance. (Putin’s other explanations for the intervention—that he ordered it to protect Crimea’s Russian population from Ukrainian nationalists and to respect Crimeans’ right to self-determination—should be taken less seriously, since the nationalist threat in Crimea was largely invented and since Putin had shown little interest in self-determination for the peninsula for most of his previous 14 years in power.)

So what was the annexation—a reaction to NATO’s expansion, an act of imperial aggression, or an impromptu response to an unexpected crisis? The truth might involve elements of more than one theory, and some of the details remain unknown. Nevertheless, information that has surfaced over the past two years and insights from recent interviews in Moscow suggest some important conclusions: Putin’s seizure of Crimea appears to have been an improvised gambit, developed under pressure, that was triggered by the fear of losing Russia’s strategically important naval base in Sevastopol.

NATO’s enlargement remains a sore point for Russian leaders, and some in the Kremlin certainly dream of restoring Russia’s lost grandeur. Yet the chaotic manner in which the operation in Crimea unfolded belies any concerted plan for territorial revanche. Although this might at first seem reassuring, it in fact pre­sents a formidable challenge to Western officials: in Putin, they must confront a leader who is increasingly prone to risky gambles and to grabbing short-run tactical advantages with little apparent concern for long-term strategy.

NATO NYET!

Consider first the notion that Putin ordered the seizure of Crimea to prevent Russia’s military encirclement by NATO. It is clear that enlarging NATO without making more than token attempts to integrate Russia helped poison the relationship between Moscow and the West over the past two decades, just as it is well known that Russia’s leaders are determined to prevent Ukraine from becoming a NATO member. But that does not mean that resisting NATO’s expansion was what motivated Putin in this case.

The biggest problem with the theory that Putin seized Crimea to stop Ukraine from joining NATO is that Ukraine was not heading toward NATO membership when Putin struck. In 2010, in large part to improve relations with Russia, the Yanukovych government had passed a law barring Ukraine from participation in any military bloc. In subsequent years, Kiev settled instead for partnership with the alliance, participating in some of its military exercises and contributing a ship to NATO antipiracy operations—an outcome that Russia seemed to accept. Indeed, when Putin, justifying the intervention in March 2014, claimed that he had “heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO,” he excluded an important detail: all the recent public statements to that effect by Ukrainian politicians had come only after Russian troops had already appeared in Crimea.

Even if Ukrainian officials had wanted to join NATO after Yanukovych’s ouster, the alliance was not about to let the country in. Putin had already won that battle at a NATO summit in 2008, when the alliance had chosen not to move forward on Ukrainian or Georgian membership. British, French, and German officials had argued that the two countries remained too unstable to be put on a path to joining the alliance and that doing so would also unnecessarily antagonize Moscow. Although NATO did not rule out Ukraine’s eventual accession, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained opposed to practical steps in that direction, and U.S. President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, took no action to advance Kiev’s membership. What is more, in October 2013, just months before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary-general, announced unequivocally that Ukraine would not join the alliance in 2014. There was little reason to expect that to change anytime soon.

Of course, Putin might have believed otherwise. If that were the case, however, he would probably have raised the issue with Western leaders. He seems not to have done so, at least not with Obama, according to Michael McFaul, who served as the president’s special assistant on Russia from 2009 to 2012 and as the U.S. ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to early 2014. During that period, McFaul was present for all but one of the meetings between Obama and Putin or Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 while he was serving in Washington, McFaul also listened in on all the phone conversations Obama had with either Russian leader. In a speech last year, McFaul said he couldn’t “recall once that the issue of NATO expansion came up” during any of those exchanges.

If Putin’s goal was to prevent Russia’s military encirclement, his aggression in Ukraine has been a tremendous failure, since it has produced exactly the opposite outcome. Largely to deter what it perceives as an increased Russian threat, NATO has deepened its presence in eastern Europe since Moscow’s intervention, creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that will rotate among Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania and stationing four warships in the Black Sea. In February, the White House revealed plans to more than quadruple U.S. military spending in Europe.

Last January, I asked a source close to Oleg Belaventsev, the commander of Russia’s military operation in Crimea, if Russian officials had been worried about Ukraine joining NATO in the months preceding the intervention. “They weren’t afraid of Ukraine joining NATO,” the source replied. “But they were definitely worried that the Ukrainians would cancel the [Russian] lease on [the naval base in] Sevastopol and kick out the Black Sea Fleet.”

This seems plausible, since the Black Sea Fleet is crucial to Russia’s ability to project force into the Black and Mediterranean Seas and since many of Ukraine’s opposition leaders had criticized Yanukovych for extending Moscow’s lease on the base. Yet if securing the base was Putin’s main concern, as seems likely, the puzzle is why he chose such a risky strategy. With a contingent of around 20,000 well-armed troops in Crimea and a mostly pro-Russian population on the peninsula, it would have been difficult for Ukraine to evict Russia from Sevastopol, and in the past, Moscow had always found ways to protect its interests in the region without using force. Annexing the territory—at the cost of international isolation, economic sanctions, the reinvigoration of NATO, and the alienation of most of the Ukrainian population—seems like an extreme reaction to a manageable threat. Before the operation in Crimea, Putin’s decisions could generally be rationalized in terms of costs and benefits, but since then, his foreign policy calculus has been harder to decipher.

IMPERIAL DELUSIONS?

For those who see Putin as an imperialist, Russia’s moves in Crimea are easy to explain. After all, Putin has notoriously characterized the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” has claimed that “Ukraine is not even a state,” and has a history of meddling in countries on Russia’s periphery. In 2008, the same year that Russian tanks rolled into Georgia to protect the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian officials were reportedly distributing Russian passports to Crimean residents, creating an apparent pretext for an invasion in their defense.

Other, more specific signs also seem to show that Moscow was preparing to seize Crimea in the six months before Yanukovych’s fall. Vladislav Surkov, a senior Putin adviser, repeatedly visited Kiev and Simferopol, the Crimean capital, in the fall and winter of 2013–14, in part to promote the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait to connect southern Russia and Crimea—an essential transportation link in case of annexation. Around the same time, teams of Russian police and secret service officers were seen in Kiev.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Konstantinov, the chair of the Crimean parliament, was making frequent trips to Moscow. On one such visit, in December 2013, according to the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, he met with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council and the Kremlin’s top security official. According to Zygar’s report, Patrushev was “pleasantly surprised” to learn from Konstantinov that Crimea would be ready to “go to Russia” if Yanukovych were overthrown. Just before Russia’s intervention, Konstantinov was back in Moscow, meeting with senior officials.

Other evidence also suggests a long-standing Russian plot to acquire the peninsula. In February 2014, according to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a memo circulated in Russia’s executive branch proposing the annexation of Crimea and other parts of eastern Ukraine if Yanukovych fell. With Yanukovych gone, the memo suggested, Ukraine would split into western and eastern parts, and the EU would swallow up the west. Moscow would need to quickly promote referendums on the issue of Russian annexation in the pro-Russian regions in the country’s east.

Yet on closer examination, the theory that Putin had long intended to take Crimea doesn’t quite hold up. Consider Surkov’s frequent trips to the peninsula. What the Putin adviser discussed with local leaders on these visits remains unknown. If Surkov was preparing for the region’s annexation, however, Putin’s next move seems bizarre. Instead of sending Surkov to Simferopol to oversee Russia’s intervention, Putin took him off the case in late February Surkov apparently spent most of March in Moscow, with enough free time to attend a gallery opening and even take a vacation in Sweden with his wife. Zygar has suggested that Surkov’s real assignment in Ukraine had been not to prepare for the annexation of Crimea but to keep Yanukovych in power—a task at which he failed, much to Putin’s displeasure. As for the police and secret service teams seen around Kiev, their role was likely to advise Yanukovych’s staff on how to crush antigovernment protests in the capital had they been planning for an operation in Crimea, they would have been sent there instead.

Indeed, many details that at first seem to indicate careful Russian preparation actually point to the absence of any long-held plan. For example, if Moscow had really been scheming to annex Crimea, it would not have merely discussed a bridge over the Kerch Strait with Ukrainian officials it would have built one. Instead, the negotiations had crept along for more than ten years, and between 2010, when Yanukovych and Medvedev agreed to build the bridge, and 2014, Russia did not even manage to complete a feasibility study for the project.

That a document as speculative as the pro-annexation memo revealed by Novaya Gazeta was circulating less than a month before the operation, meanwhile, suggests that Putin had not adopted a concrete plan by February 2014. And why was Patrushev, a senior official and reportedly one of the strongest backers of intervention in Ukraine, “surprised” to hear that the Crimean elite would approve of annexation? If the Kremlin had been contemplating an occupation, Patrushev would have seen intelligence reports to that effect by the time of his meeting with Konstantinov in December 2013.

In fact, until shortly before it happened, it appears that Putin did not expect Yanukovych to fall from power. If he had, he likely would have found some pretext to postpone the disbursement of a $3 billion loan that Russia had promised the Yanukovych government in December 2013. He didn’t, of course, and Ukraine’s new government defaulted on the loan in December 2015. As the political consultant and former Kremlin official Aleksei Chesnakov told me, “It’s not Putin’s style to make such presents.”

WINGING IT

The clearest evidence against a consistent plan for territorial expansion is the chaotic way in which the Crimean intervention unfolded. Although the military component of the operation ran smoothly, its political aspects at times revealed an almost farcical lack of preparation.

Putin has said that he first instructed aides to “start working on returning Crimea to Russia” on the morning of February 23, after Yanukovych fled Kiev. In fact, according to the source close to Belaventsev, the commander of the Crimean operation, Moscow put Russian special forces in the southern port city of Novorossiysk and at the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol on alert on February 18, as violence flared up between police and antigovernment protesters in Kiev. Two days later, on February 20, Russian troops received an order from Putin to blockade Ukrainian military installations in Crimea and prevent bloodshed between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev groups protesting on the peninsula. But they did not begin to do so until February 23, two days after Yanukovych left Kiev. The earliest steps in the operation, in other words, appear to have been tentative: Putin could have called off the mission if the agreement that Yanukovych signed with opposition leaders and EU foreign ministers on February 21 to hold early elections had stuck.

Belaventsev arrived in Crimea on February 22, according to the source. A longtime aide to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Belaventsev was unfamiliar with Crimea’s political scene, and after consulting locals, he persuaded the incumbent prime minister, an unpopular Yanukovych appointee, to step down. To replace him, Belaventsev chose an elderly Communist, Leonid Grach, who had been known in Moscow since the Soviet era.

What Belaventsev didn’t know was that Grach had alienated most of Crimea’s power brokers over the years—an oversight that Konstantinov, the leader of the Crimean parliament, made clear to Belaventsev after he had already offered Grach the position. To his embarrassment, Belaventsev had to call Grach to rescind the offer of the premiership only a day after he had made it. To head the regional government, Belaventsev then turned to Sergei Aksyonov, a local pro-Russian businessman and former boxer known to locals by the underworld nickname “Goblin.”

Even more surprising, in the days that followed, the Kremlin appeared not to know what it wanted to do with Crimea. On February 27, the region’s parliament voted to hold a referendum on May 25 to ask residents whether they agreed that Crimea was “a self-sufficient state and . . . is part of Ukraine on the basis of treaties and agreements”—in other words, whether they thought that the region should have greater autonomy but remain in Ukraine. A week after the beginning of the operation, Putin had not yet decided on annexation.

On March 1, Crimea’s parliament rescheduled the referendum from May 25 to March 30. Then, on March 6, the deputies advanced the date by another two weeks, and this time they rewrote the referendum question to ask whether residents supported the unification of Crimea with Russia instead of whether they supported autonomy within Ukraine.

Why did Putin raise the referendum’s stakes from autonomy to annexation? One reason was pressure from pro-Russian Crimean leaders, including Konstantinov, who feared ending up in a semi-recognized statelet like Abkhazia or South Ossetia, shunned by Ukraine and the West and too small to thrive economically. More important, having deployed Russian forces throughout the peninsula, Putin found himself trapped. To simply withdraw, allowing Ukrainian troops to retake Crimea and prosecute Moscow’s supporters there, would have made him look intolerably weak, and after the return of Ukrainian control, Kiev might well have canceled Russia’s lease on the naval base in Sevastopol. The only way Russia could have safely pulled out of Crimea would have been if the West had recognized an eventual vote for Crimean autonomy as legitimate and persuaded the Ukrainian government to respect it. Western leaders, outraged by Russia’s invasion, had made clear that they would do nothing of the sort.

For Moscow to back mere autonomy for the peninsula without Western support would have been dangerous, since Russia would have had to defend Crimea’s pro-Russian government against any attempt by Kiev to use the 22,000 Ukrainian troops stationed there to restore order. If, by contrast, Russia had chosen to expel the Ukrainian forces and defend the region against a counter­offensive, it would have aroused nearly as much hostility in the West as it would if it took control of the territory outright. By March 4, unable to find a viable exit strategy, the Kremlin had decided on annexation.

ON S’ENGAGE, ET PUIS . . .

All this improvisation makes it hard to see Russia’s intervention in Crimea as part of a systematic expansionist project. Any halfway competent imperialist would have known whom to appoint as the local satrap after the invasion and would already have chosen whether to offer residents a referendum on autonomy or annexation. And a resolute revanchist would have made sure to build a bridge to the target territory, rather than squandering ten years in fruitless discussions.

This is not to say there are not factions in the Kremlin with imperial appetites. Putin himself may share such impulses. It is likewise true that Russia’s leaders detest NATO’s enlargement and exploit it as a rhetorical rallying point. Yet such appetites and concerns had not jelled into any coherent plan for an invasion of Crimea. Until shortly before Putin’s commandos struck, the Kremlin had been preoccupied with events in Kiev.

If Putin’s main concern was Moscow’s hold on Sevastopol, this suggests several important points. First, the disastrous turn in relations between Russia and the West over the past two years might have been avoided had Ukrainian officials, as well as opposition leaders and their Western backers, consistently promised to respect the agreement that extended Russia’s lease on the base until the 2040s. To be sure, this agreement was highly unpopular in Ukraine. But had Ukrainians known that the alternative would be the loss of Crimea and a bloody war in the country’s east, they might have settled for the indignity of hosting a foreign power’s forces.

Next, it suggests that Putin has become willing in recent years to take major strategic risks to counter seemingly limited and manageable threats to Russian interests. By deploying special forces in Crimea without planning for the region’s political future, Putin showed that he is not just an improviser but also a gambler. Indeed, encouraged by the high domestic approval ratings his venture secured, Putin has continued to roll the dice, supporting the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, bombing antigovernment rebels in Syria, and escalating a confrontation with Turkey over the downing of a Russian warplane in November.

The importance of Sevastopol in the case of Russia’s intervention in Crimea demonstrates the need to accurately identify Russia’s key strategic assets, as seen by Putin, if the West is to anticipate his moves in future crises. The Baltic states contain no Russian bases that might invite a similar intervention. In Syria, the port of Tartus—Russia’s only naval outpost in the Mediterranean—is probably too small and poorly equipped to matter much, although the Russian military might have plans to expand it. A greater threat could arise were Turkey to attempt to close the Turkish Straits, which connect the Black and Mediterranean Seas, to Russian ships. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey has the right to deny passage through these straits to military vessels from countries with which it is at war or in imminent danger of conflict. Were Ankara to take this step, it would make it much harder for Russia to provide naval support to military operations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, such as its recent intervention in Syria, and that might provoke a furious and possibly disproportionate Russian response. That both Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan need to appear strong internationally for domestic political reasons renders the antagonism between them alarming, so Western leaders should make clear to Ankara that they would not support closing the straits if Russian-Turkish tensions rose further.

Putin’s recent penchant for high-stakes wagers may prove even harder for Western leaders to handle than a policy of consistent expansionism. A rational imperialist can be contained, but the appropriate response to a gambler who makes snap decisions based on short-term factors is less clear. In both Crimea and Syria, Putin has sought to exploit surprise, moving fast to change facts on the ground before the West could stop him. By reacting boldly to crises, he creates new ones for Russia and the world.


To understand Crimea, take a look back at its complicated history

When President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev this week, it was tempting to assume that Ukraine's crisis was over: Euromaidan had won, and the forces of Western-style democracy had prevailed over Yanukovych's Kremlin-led repression.

If only it were that simple. For the past few days all eyes have been on southern Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and things don't look so rosy. Crimea, which is not only populated by 60 percent Russian speakers but is the base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, has seen some worrying developments in the past few days: On Thursday gunmen reportedly seized government buildings in the capital, Simferopol, barricading themselves in and raising Russian flags.

Crimea's situation is, as with many things in Ukraine's political crisis, compounded by a complicated history. For most in America and Western Europe, however, that history is likely obscure -- wasn't there a war or something there? Let's take a look back.

What even is 'the' Crimea?

It's revealing that Crimea is, much like Ukraine, often prefaced with a "the" when referred to in English. As I wrote late last year, the once-widespread use of "the Ukraine" has often angered Ukrainians, many of whom believe that the implication is that Ukraine is a region, not a country, that could be conquered by greater powers. The same logic could be applied to Crimea: For centuries the Crimean Peninsula, which occupies a strategically important location on the Black Sea and has arable land, has been fought over by various outside forces.

Before it was even known as Crimea, for example, the peninsula was known was "Taurica" by the Greek and Roman empires, both of which at points incorporated the region into their empires. These weren't the only outside forces that dominated Crimea, and at other points in its past it has been invaded or ruled by Gothic tribes, the Kievan Rus' state, the Byzantium empire and the Mongols, among many others. From the mid-1400s it existed as the Crimean Khanate, a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire, during which time it became the center of a roaring slave trade.

The modern name "Crimea" seems to have come from the language of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group that emerged during the Crimean Khanate. The Tatars called the peninsula "Qırım." While Russia, which annexed the state in 1783, officially tried to change the name back to Taurica, Crimea was still used informally and eventually reappeared officially in 1917.

In "The Tatars of Crimea: Return to the Homeland: Studies and Documents," Edward A. Allsworth explains that its name may been derived from the peninsula's strategically rugged landscape and may have meant "fortress" or "stronghold." If that's accurate, it's apt that Crimea is perhaps best known in the English language for the Crimean War, which began in 1853 and involved three years of bloody fighting between Russia and an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia. While Russia eventually lost the war and Crimea suffered significant damage, it remained part of Russia.

The peninsula had a very tricky 20th century

After the October Revolution ended the Russian Empire in 1917, Crimea briefly found itself a sovereign state. That didn't last long, however: It was quickly dragged into the Russian civil war, where it became a stronghold for the White Army. Following a succession of governments in a few short years, Crimea eventually became the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921, part of the Soviet Union. It remained like this until 1945, when it became the Crimean Oblast, an administrative region of Russia.

Like much much of the Eastern Front, Crimea's experience in World War II was incredibly traumatic: It was occupied by Nazi Germany, and the port city of Sevastopol was almost destroyed in the fighting. Once the Red Army retook Crimea in 1944, it forcibly deported the entire population of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia as punishment for collaboration with German forces. Almost half are believed to have died along the way. The Tatars, who had been on the peninsula for centuries, were not allowed to return to Crimea until the end of Soviet Union. They wouldn't forget their hardships, however.

With the Crimean Tatars deported from the peninsula, along with large numbers of Greeks and Armenians, Crimea was a very Russian place. Then, in 1954, something unusual happened: Russia gave it to Ukraine.

Why exactly did Premier Nikita Khrushchev transfer the Crimean Oblast to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic? In an informative post over at Slate, Joshua Keating picks up on a few possibilities. For one, the award of Crimea -- a strategically important place also great for agriculture -- was seen as a "gift" for Ukraine, whose people had suffered terribly during World War II. Peasants from Crimea could now be rewarded with land in Ukraine. Khrushchev, though Russian himself, had worked his way up through the Ukrainian Communist Party and likely felt a tie to the region.

It also probably didn't feel like a big deal at the time: Back in the days of the Soviet Union, the difference between Ukraine and Russia perhaps felt nominal. By 1991 and the Soviet collapse, things were obviously a little different. While many apparently expected new President Boris Yeltsin to demand that Crimea be returned to Russia, it never was. (As a side note, when hard-liners tried to force President Mikhail Gorbachev out in a coup in 1991, the Soviet leader was at his vacation home -- in Crimea).

When Ukraine held a referendum on independence in December 1991, 54 percent of Crimean voters favored independence from Russia. It was a majority, but the lowest one found in Ukraine. Following a brief tussle with the newly independent Ukrainian government, Crimea agreed to remain part of Ukraine, but with significant autonomy (including its own constitution and legislature and – briefly – its own president). In 1997, Ukraine and Russia signed a bilateral Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, which formally allowed Russia to keep its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

So why does this matter now?

The Euromaidan protests have frequently been portrayed as a battle between the pro-European West and the pro-Russian East, a legacy of Ukraine's own history of Russian domination. That could be something of an oversimplification, sure, but it's an idea that resonates with many, both abroad and within Ukraine.

Given that Crimea has a modern history intrinsically linked with Russia, contains the largest population of ethnic Russians within Ukraine, and harbors a significant portion of Russia's navy in Sevastopol, Crimea is clearly an important place in that narrative. Add a minority Crimean Tatar population (12 percent in 2001) that has pretty good reason to be wary of Moscow, plus a lot of Ukrainians, and the situation could easily look explosive.

Of course, Crimea's history doesn't automatically mean conflict. While the Russian nationalists in Crimea have been given a lot of attention in the past few days, some say they aren't a coherent force. Ellie Knott, a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics who conducts research in Crimea, has argued convincingly that the Russian nationalist and Crimean separatists are in practice hindered by their own internal divisions, and that many ethnic Russians in Crimea have a more complicated sense of national identity than might first appear. And while Russia has shown itself willing to get involved in the affairs of post-Soviet states, most recently with Georgia over the breakaway state of South Ossetia, few are predicting it will openly get involved in a dispute with Ukraine anytime soon.

If there's one thing you can say about Crimea's history, it's that it's been full of surprises. Its future might be, too.


Why Russia Wants Crimea

When Russia signed the Treaty of Paris in 1856, accepting defeat in the Crimean War—which had decimated its military and ruined its economy—it agreed to dismantle its naval base in the port city of Sevastopol. These were the terms demanded by Britain, France and their allies, who sought to eliminate Russia as a military threat in the Black Sea.

But the concession didn’t last long.

Russia began to rebuild Sevastopol during the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870. And throughout history, Russian leaders would return to Crimea again and again. After Germany’s bombing of Crimea during World War II, much of Sevastopol was in ruins. But Joseph Stalin declared the port a “hero city” and ordered it restored to its former neoclassical beauty.

Indeed, the Crimean peninsula has loomed large for Russian leaders ever since Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great annexed it from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. The strategically located peninsula, which is officially part of Ukraine, has given Russia military leverage not only in the Black Sea, but the greater Mediterranean region. After the

June 1942: A warship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet shelling German and Romanian positions near Sevastopol (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

But in 2014, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in an illegal move that violated the territorial integrity of the former Soviet republic, and sparked a war that has displaced nearly 2 million people and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justifies the aggression, in part, by asserting that Crimea is mostly comprised of ethnic Russians.

The peninsula has a complicated history.

For hundreds of years, Crimea has been the home of Tatars, a group of Turkic speakers who lived under the Ottoman Empire until Catherine the Great annexed the region. In 1944, Stalin deported about 200,000 Tatars to Siberia and Central Asia, calling the ethnic Muslims traitors to the USSR and bringing in ethnic Russians to replenish the workforce. And after Stalin’s death, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine in a move hailed as a “noble act on behalf of the Russian people.” The transfer was praised at the 1954 meeting of the Presidium of the USSR Soviet Supreme, the Soviet Union’s highest legislative body.

𠇌omrades…The transfer of the Crimean Oblast (or region) to the Ukrainian SSR is occurring in remarkable days,” said Soviet politician Sharof Rashidov. “This is possible only in our country, where there is no ethnic strife and there are no national differences, where the lives of all the Soviet peoples pass in an atmosphere of peaceful constructive work in the name of the peace and happiness of all humanity…”

𠇌omrades!…Only in our country is it possible that such a great people as the Russian people magnanimously transferred one of the valuable oblasts to another fraternal people without any hesitation,” said Otto Wille Kuusinen, another Communist Party leader.

But for all the talk about unity and cooperation, recent documents suggest Khrushchev’s move was motivated more by political calculation than goodwill. It was designed to appease Ukrainian leadership and solidify his position in the power struggle that emerged after Stalin’s death in 1953.


Crimea’s Bloody Past Is a Key to Its Present

KIEV, Ukraine — On Thursday, masked gunmen vowing loyalty to Russia seized the Parliament building in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.

The simple explanation was that pro-Russian demonstrators in Crimea, a peninsula of Ukraine that juts into the Black Sea, were unhappy with the political developments here in Kiev, where three months of civic unrest led to the ouster on Saturday of President Viktor F. Yanukovych.

In a historic sense, however, Thursday’s events were as much about Russia’s relationship with Ukraine as they were about Crimea’s relationship with Ukraine. Crimea, a multiethnic region populated by Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars, has been the focus of territorial disputes for centuries, and in recent decades it has frequently been a source of tension between Ukraine and Russia.

Before this week, the most recent of these disputes occurred in May 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Crimean Parliament declared independence from Ukraine. And there has always been an expectation that when things become tense between Russia and Ukraine, that tension is likely to be felt must acutely in Crimea.

“The Crimean peninsula has become an arena for the duel between Kiev and Moscow on political, economic, military and territorial disputes,” Victor Zaborsky, an expert on the region, wrote in a 1995 paper for the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

The 1992 dispute was resolved with an agreement known as the Act on Division of Power Between Authorities of Ukraine and Republic of Crimea, which granted Crimea autonomous status within Ukraine.

In that sense, it is similar to the status of Chechnya within Russia. Chechnya’s autonomy nods to that region’s distinct Chechen language and Muslim religion, while in Crimea, such autonomy acknowledges that the political and cultural identity is often more Russian than Ukrainian.

Historically, Crimea has been a crossroads for stampeding empires, and it has been occupied or overrun by Greeks, Huns, Russians, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks, Golden Horde Tatars, Mongols and others. It became part of Ukraine in 1954, when the Soviet ruler Nikita S. Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, as a gift to mark the fraternal bond between Ukraine and Russia.

As part of the 1992 dispute, Russia’s Parliament voted symbolically to rescind the gift.

Crimea is home to the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet, and also beach resorts that have long been favored by Russian and Ukrainian rulers. Russia now leases the naval installations, under a controversial deal that Mr. Yanukovych agreed in 2010 to extend by 25 years, until 2042, in an arrangement that includes discounts for Ukraine on Russian natural gas.

The worst of the conflicts over Crimea was the Crimean War of 1853-56. At least 750,000 people were killed.


The rise of Muscovy

From the beginning of the Tatar period, the Rurikid princes displayed much disunity. During the reign of Öz Beg there was a shift of alignments. The princes of Moscow and their allies, together with Öz Beg and his Crimean supporters, generally opposed the princes of Tver, Pskov, and, intermittently, Novgorod. The major punitive measures directed by Öz Beg against Tver with Muscovite support were a part of this pattern.

The links forged in the 14th century between Moscow and Crimea (and Sarai, while Öz Beg controlled it) were crucial to Moscow’s later preeminence. They not only afforded Moscow a steady and profitable export trade for its furs but, because of contacts between Crimean merchants and Byzantium, also led quite naturally to close relations between the Muscovite hierarchy and the patriarchate of Constantinople. This special relationship was but one of the reasons for the eventual rise of Moscow as leader of the Russian lands. Admirably situated in the northeast, linked with all of the major navigable river systems and with the steppe, close to the major fur-producing regions and to the most intensely settled agricultural lands, served by a succession of shrewd and long-lived princes, Moscow came naturally to a position of preeminence during the 14th century and was best equipped to enter the struggle for the political inheritance of the Golden Horde that followed the destruction of its capitals by Timur.


Government and People of Crimea

Today, Crimea is considered a semi-autonomous region. It has been annexed by Russia and is considered a part of Russia by that country and its supporters. However, since Ukraine and many western countries deemed the March 2014 referendum to be illegal they still consider Crimea a part of Ukraine. Those in opposition say that the vote was illegal because it “violated Ukraine’s newly re-forged constitution and amounts to … [an attempt]…by Russia to expand its borders to the Black Sea peninsula under a threat of force." At the time of this writing, Russia was moving forward with plans to annex Crimea despite Ukraine’s and international opposition.

Russia’s main claim for wanting to annex Crimea is that it needs to protect the ethnic Russian citizens in the region from extremists and the interim government in Kyiv. The majority of Crimea’s population identifies themselves as ethnic Russian (58%) and over 50% of the population speaks Russian.


A new Europe

British soldiers go 'over the top' in World War One © More fundamentally, the Crimean War witnessed the collapse of the Vienna Settlement, the system that had enabled Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia to cooperate and maintain peace for three decades. Russia lost the war and with it the myth of Russian might, the legacy of 1812, was shattered.

The other big loser would be neutral Austria. Within a decade it had been expelled from territory held in Germany and Italy and forced to enter into a dual-monarchy with Hungary, formerly a subject province. Multinational empires were on notice - the 19th century was an age of nations.

Britain was unable to balance the new system, and the European Great Powers finally returned to war in 1914.

The shock of defeat forced Russia to adopt a programme of sweeping internal reforms and industrialisation under Tsar Alexander II, who came to throne in early 1855. Elsewhere, Russia’s defeat facilitated the unification of Germany under Prussian control. While France became the dominant military land power in Europe, this was a temporary situation and one that Prussia (Germany) overturned in 1870-1871.

Sardinian intervention ensured the kingdom a central role in the unification of Italy. The Crimean War laid the foundations for two powerful new nation states - Italy and Germany - states that would be united and secured in short, limited conflicts. The new six-power European system proved less stable than its predecessor, while the expectation that political and diplomatic aims could be satisfied by war led these states to adopt ever closer alliances.

Ultimately, Britain was unable to balance the new system and the European Great Powers finally returned to war in 1914, ninety-nine years after the Vienna Settlement. The Crimean War was a decisive turning point in European history, marking the end of the Vienna settlement, and the beginning of a new system.


U.S. Department of the Treasury

OFAC takes action in partnership with the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia

WASHINGTON — Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated five individuals and three entities related to Russia’s occupation of the Crimea region of Ukraine and its severe human rights abuses against the local population. These designations, pursuant to Executive Orders (E.O.) 13660 and 13685, impose sanctions on individuals who have asserted governmental authority over the Crimea region of Ukraine without the authorization of Ukraine, as well as target individuals and entities for operating in the Crimea region of Ukraine. Today’s actions demonstrate the Department of the Treasury’s unwavering commitment to counter Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and Russia’s human rights abuses against Ukrainians. Several of these individuals and entities have recently been sanctioned by the European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK), Canada, and Australia.

“This action, taken in close cooperation with our allies, represents the international community’s firm commitment to hold Russia accountable for the attempted annexation of Crimea,” said OFAC Director Andrea M. Gacki. “These designations impose additional costs on Russia for its forceful integration with Crimea and highlight the abuses that have taken place under Russia’s attempted annexation. The United States remains committed to supporting Ukrainian sovereignty: Crimea is Ukraine.”

KERCH STRAIT BRIDGE

Following Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia sought to connect the Russian mainland to the Crimea region of Ukraine, which is separated from Russia by the Kerch Strait. In 2016, Russia began the construction of what would become the longest bridge in Europe: a railway bridge over the Kerch Strait. In 2018, construction was completed, linking Russia with the Crimea region of Ukraine. With our international partners, the United States has continued to take targeted actions against persons involved in this project, undertaken by Russia in furtherance of its illegitimate assertion of sovereignty over Ukraine. For example, on January29, 2020, OFAC designated one individual and one entity related to the construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge as well as seven so-called officials of the so-called Republic of Crimea.

In partnership with our international allies, Treasury designated Leonid Kronidovich Ryzhenkin (Ryzhenkin), Lenpromtransproyekt, and Joint-Stock Company The Berkakit-Tommot-Yakutsk Railway Line’s Construction Directorate in response to their involvement in the construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge. The construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge is a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and has been condemned by the international community.

Ryzhenkin is a Russian national and the chief executive officer (CEO) of Mostotrest, a Russian construction company that operates in the Crimea region of Ukraine. Mostotrest’s share in the total construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge was worth more than $1.9 billion. Mostotrest and its owner, Arkady Rotenberg, were previously designated by OFAC pursuant to E.O. 13685 and E.O. 13661, respectively. Prior to Mostotrest, Ryzhenkin worked for another designated Russian construction company, Stroygazmontazh, where he also supervised projects related to the construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge. OFAC previously designated Stroygazmontazh pursuant to E.O. 13661. Ryzhenkin was designated pursuant to E.O. 13685 for being the leader of an entity operating in the Crimea region of Ukraine. Ryzhenkin was previously designated by the EU and the UK in 2020 and in 2021 by Canada and Australia.

Lenpromtransproyekt is a Russian company that designed the Kerch Strait Bridge. Lenpromtransproyekt was designated pursuant to E.O. 13685 for operating in the Crimea region of Ukraine. The company was previously designated by the EU and the UK in 2020 and in 2021 by Canada and Australia.

Joint-Stock Company The Berkakit-Tommot-Yakutsk Railway Line’s Construction Directorate is a Russian company that participated in the construction of the railway for the Kerch Strait Bridge. Joint-Stock Company The Berkakit-Tommot-Yakutsk Railway Line’s Construction Directorate was designated pursuant to E.O. 13685 for operating in the Crimea region of Ukraine. The company was previously designated by the EU and the UK in 2020 and in 2021 by Canada and Australia.

ABUSES AGAINST THE LOCAL POPULATION

The atrocious conditions at the Simferopol SIZO-1 pre-trial detention center in Simferopol, in the Crimea region of Ukraine, are emblematic of the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated against Ukraine’s people. The notorious prison is known for severe abuses, communicable diseases, poor and inhumane living conditions, and inadequate medical assistance. Prisoners are known to freeze, starve, suffer from parasites, and be kept in poorly ventilated, unsanitary cells. Among the wide variety of prisoners held at this overcrowded prison are those detained on politically motivated criminal charges, as well as Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians held in indefinite detention. Simferopol SIZO-1 was designated pursuant to E.O. 13685 for operating in the Crimea region of Ukraine.

OFFICIALS CARRYING OUT THE OCCUPATION OF CRIMEA

Today’s action also targeted three Russian officials and a local official involved in Russia’s occupation of and efforts to control and govern the Crimea region of Ukraine. These bureaucrats are critical to the Russian government’s malign effort to exercise authority within Ukrainian territory following Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea. Individuals included in this action were: Larisa Vitalievna Kulinich (Kulinich) Pavel Leonidovich Karanda (Karanda) Leonid Mikhailiuk (Mikhailiuk) and Vladimir Nikolaevich Terentiev (Terentiev).

Kulinich, a Ukrainian and Russian national, is the so-called Minister of Property and Land Relations in the so-called Republic of Crimea. Previously, Kulinich was First Deputy Minister of Property and Land Relations.

Karanda, a Russian national, is the so-called Minister of Internal Affairs for the so-called Republic of Crimea.

Mikhailiuk, a Russian national, is the so-called Chief of the Russian Intelligence Services’ Federal Security Service (FSB) Department in Crimea and Sevastopol. Prior to his illegitimate position in Crimea, Mikhailiuk was the head of the FSB departments in Russia’s Vologda and Kaliningrad oblasts.

Terentiev, a Russian national, is the so-called Head of the Main Directorate of the Investigative Committee in the so-called Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol.